In 2011, writer Dave Kelly and artist Lara Antal formed their own publishing company called So What? Press. Their first book was called “Tales of the Night Watchman,” which continues to this day. This dynamic duo from Brooklyn, NY has slowly gotten their books into 50 stores across the country and has grown their publishing house to include multiple new books from many other creators, including the critically-acclaimed anthology “Breakers.”
The story behind the birth of this indy publisher is almost as interesting as the books they create. Years ago, when Dave was undergoing treatment from cancer, an idea germinated in his mind. During a Christmas party later that year, he met a wonderful young girl that happened to be an illustrator. As their friendship grew, they developed this comic story together. They also developed a love for each other. Together as partners in life and business, they went forth with a common love of comics and started So What? Press. We at Indyfest Magazine had the pleasure to talk to one half of the So What? Team, Dave Kelly. He talked about the future of his work and the hardships of indy comic publishing.
IM: Tell our readers a little about yourself. Why did you get into comic writing? What inspires your writing?
DK: I’ve been a writer since day one. My parents cultivated a positive environment that prioritized Saturday morning cartoons over schoolwork (not their intent) and, here we are. I’m inspired today by the same stuff that inspired me as a kid: Batman, Dick Tracy, Ghostbusters, among other things. The big difference now is that I’m immersed in the world of professional comics creators who inspire me to bring my A-game—which I’m still trying to reach, haha.
IM: As a publisher, you started off with one book, and now you’ve branched out to many other critically-acclaimed books from other artists. What is the next stage for So What? Press beyond your creator-owned books?
DK: Well, we’ve got some cool projects in the works. We just reprinted a great minicomic by Marnie Galloway called Mare Cognitum. We’ll also be doing something brand-new with her next year, called Particle/Wave. This is all in addition to distributing the works that she self-publishes. Expect more minicomics from other artists in the future, as well. We’re always up to something.
IM: You’ve put in a lot of work to get your books into comic shops across the states. With more and more comic shops closing, and comic sales in general going down every year, what are your thoughts on the future for indy comics in general? Do you ever see a day where digital will take over the printed form completely?
DK: Like anything, comics are constantly in flux. Some awesome stores closed this year, but some brand new, potentially awesome stores opened in their wake. There’s always going to be turnover in that area, so I’m not too worried. A lot of the newer stores are more open to carrying small press. A lot of older stores are, too, but you’ve got to push a little harder, sell yourself more.
I’m a firm believer that it’s not print versus digital; it’s print and digital. People love to buy and collect tangible things, which drives the print market. Twenty years ago, people laughed at the state of the vinyl record—now look at it. There will be dips here and there, but print will always bounce back. You have a generation that’s overly screen-focused coming into adulthood right now, but the generation behind them will look at things differently. And who knows where technology will be at that point? A book will always be a book. It’s a perfect form.
Another big proponent of print, insofar as comics are concerned, is small press. Comics are a commercial art. As an independent creator, you’re not going to survive by giving your work away for free or selling it for $0.99 digitally. You’ve got to package your art and sell it to those who want it, at a premium.
IM: Tell our readers a little about Tales of the Night Watchman. What do you have planned for the series and the characters in the future?
DK: Tales of the Night Watchman is about a young woman named Nora who works in a coffee shop and her roommate /coworker, Charlie, who happens to be possessed by a detective from the 1940s who calls himself The Night Watchman. They’re baristas by day, heroes by night. Charlie also keeps an eye on Serena, an androgynous teenager who lives in a tent on a Brooklyn rooftop. He gets her a job at the café as well. It’s a little bit supernatural, a little bit horror, and a little bit indy dramedy.
We’ve got Issue Four coming out at Small Press Expo this month. This is actually our seventh issue, since a few of them aren’t numbered. It’s got two stories. The next installment of our story arc, “The Long Fall,” about an unhinged politician trying to redevelop the Williamsburg waterfront, all the while coming into possession of a fragment he believes will grant him indefinite political power. Of course, things are coming to a head, and Nora and Charlie will have to stop him. This one was written by me, and illustrated by Lara Antal, my co-creator /co-publisher.
The second story is the conclusion of a two-parter, “The Dwellers of Big Bogie”. Again, written by me, but illustrated by Amanda Scurti. This one is all about Nora. She just can’t catch a break on her day off! If it isn’t the espresso machine breaking down at the café, it’s a hideously-fanged, multi-eyed creature abducting children from public playgrounds. She finds herself a hostage in the lair of Big Bogie, the husband of this aforementioned abductor of children—and has to fight her way out to save them.
Like Issue Three, it’s a flipbook. Two stories. Two sides. Two covers. Amanda did the cover to her side. Simon Fraser (Titan’s Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor) did the cover to Lara’s. We’re really excited to get it out there; it’s a good one.
IM: Is it hard to work with an artist with whom you are romantically involved? Do you always see eye-to-eye on the story, and does Lara contribute to the storylines as well?
DK: Haha, Lara has to sign off on everything. We see eye-to-eye on most things, and we’ve worked with so many artists at this point that, unless she’s drawing it, I pretty much say, “Is it cool if we do this?”, and she gives me the almighty yay or nay. I write all the stories, but she’s the first person to read them.
IM: What are some of the biggest frustrations of being an indy comic publisher? Some creators have talked about harsh treatment by fans and comic-con head honchos. Many small press publishers complain they sometimes get the worse end of the stick at comic-cons. What have your experiences been? Also, do you think going to the large comic-cons or smaller-focused cons are better for indy comics?
DK: The biggest frustration is promotion and distribution. It takes a lot of time and energy to put you and your work out there, and the results are always mixed. The best thing readers can do is tell their friends and their local comic shops that they love a book. Shout about it on the internet. Don’t be quiet. If you love Tales of the Night Watchman, let us know. Let the world know.
There are two kinds of shows out there: comic-cons and small press festivals. They’re very different and serve very different audiences. People who go to comic-cons want to buy collectibles, score free exclusives, and spot celebrities. People who go to small press festivals want to buy comics by independent creators. I love attending comic-cons, but they are not the best market for small press. We table at small press festivals, primarily because it’s the best way to get our stuff into the hands of fans and new readers. I think you can avoid a lot of stress by knowing where your work fits in.
They are so many shows these days. Comics are really thriving in that respect. A lot of creators are making product. Small Press Expo alone is totally nuts. So many people on both sides of the table.
Oh, and if I can say one last thing: We’ll be at table B5a at SPX. Lara will also be on a panel called “It’s a Small, Small, Small Press World,” about small press publishing, Sunday at 2:30 pm, so you’ll get a chance to hear her side of the story, haha.
There you have it. Like Dave says, shout about your love of small press comics you like on social media. These are the folks putting the love, sweat and tears into comics. You can find out more about So What? Press at www.sowhatpress.com and find them the Small Press Expo.
Here at Indyfest, we try to put the spotlight on some of the most unique voices in the indy publishing universe. Trisha Sugarek is one of those voices. With four decades worth of writing credits to her name, she has a huge diverse line of works on her resume, ranging from plays to mysteries to children’s books. She’s done it all by herself and has been blazing through the publishing world. She also runs a successful website dedicated to the art of writing. Plus, she’s interviewed some of the biggest names in the publishing industry. I had a chance to pick her brain a little to find out about her success in self-publishing, and all matter of other things.
IM: What are some of your major hardships in self publishing?
TS: No major hardships. I have complete artistic control with content and the cover artwork. Exposure is difficult when my true crime mysteries (for example) are competing with a half-million other mysteries. Social media can be the best marketing tool in an author’s toolbox. Self-publishing used to be a dirty word. Now it’s a respectable way to publish; so much so that some traditional publishing houses are building divisions within their company to offer self-publishing.
IM: Do you have a literary agent, and if not, have you ever submitted to one?
TS: I got off that hamster wheel years ago. Everywhere a writer goes they hear: Agent: Got a publisher? Then we’re not interested but good luck. Publisher: Got an agent, submit through them. No unsolicited manuscripts but good luck.
IM: How do you go about marketing your book? Do you go to book conventions to promote?
TS: In the past, I have held book signings and sold out. I have gone to book festivals too. I know many authors do attend many conventions, but it’s just not for me. I can accomplish the same thing on the internet and social media.
IM: You have interviewed many writers on your website. Who were some of your favorite writers to interview?
TS: It would have to be Dean Koontz and Sue Grafton. The most amusing is the recent interview with co-authors Tamara Thorne and Alistair Cross (July’s authors). They are wonderfully strange and very funny.
IM: What is your favorite type of genre to write, and what is your favorite to read?
TS: My favorite genre to write has been chick lit, and I have written three novels about women. And my second favorite to write is my true crime series The World of Murder. My favorite to read are real stories about real people and some fiction based on English history.
IM: Do you sometimes base your characters on people in your real life or are they totally made up?
TS: I have written many stories about my mother and her six sisters as they were growing up and becoming young women. My mother, because she was a business owner and flapper during the roaring ’20s (Wild Violets), and my aunt, because she ran away to Alaska in the early 1900s and stayed for 30 years (Song of the Yukon).
IM: Here’s the dreaded question. Out of all the stories you’ve written, which is your favorite and is there one you didn’t like? If so, did you ever go back to change it?
TS: If I can only choose one, it would have to be Women Outside the Walls. I created three women who are representational of all the women who wait while their husbands are incarcerated. I can’t say there is one I don’t like. I’m committed from day one to a story I want to write.
IM: How do you come up with a new story idea? What influences you? For some it’s a dream or just something they saw during the day. Others can get it with just a random thought. What are yours?
TS: Ninety-five percent of my stories have come to me. I have not searched them out. The women (The Guyer Girls) in my family (see above) were so powerful for the time in which they lived, but also flawed, making them wonderful characters to develop. All my books are based on real family stories, passed down.
Women Outside the Walls came to me as I sat in a state prison, waiting to visit a convicted murderer. I was surrounded by wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters, visiting their men in prison. My true crime series started as a ten-minute play for the classroom. Five books later, after the urging of fans and friends, it blossomed into a series: The World of Murder.
Well, there was one dream… Cheets the Elf came to me at three in the morning and, with his large feet on my back, insisted that I get up and write about him and his friends in the Fabled Forest. I objected, “I don’t write children’s books!” Four plays and four storybooks later, Cheets still isn’t satisfied.
IM: What are some of your upcoming titles?
TS: (Beneath) The Bridge of Murder, Book 6 in the World of Murder series. Someone is killing the homeless in NYC and detectives O’Roarke and Garcia have no suspects. Two murder cops, seek out killers in New York City. The first five books of the series involve the art world, backstage on Broadway, the seedy side of strip clubs, behind the scenes of the Catholic church, and the twists and turns of the Food Network and its stars.
Song of the Yukon is my saga novel. Half-written and marinating at the moment. A young female musician runs away to Alaska in the 1920s to write her music. She homesteads some land up the Yukon River and lives there for the next thirty years, building her cabin, hunting moose, falling in love, surviving a blizzard, and raising her children.
IM: Both of those books sound very intriguing. You can find all of Trisha’s books on Amazon. And be sure to visit her website, where she writes, twice weekly, about her craft and interviews some of the best writers on the planet every month.
Diego Publishing is a London-based publishing company that was founded in 2012. Their plan is to introduce their unique variety of comics to American audiences and readers worldwide. Most of their titles are successful Italian comics that are being translated for American audiences. They also recently debuted a successful Kickstarter project called the European Comics Journal at the London Comic Con. It’s always a tough challenge for new publishers to make a mark in this industry and the CEO of the company, Giuseppe Pennestri talks about the hardships and challenges in bringing an international band of Italian artists to a worldwide forum and how American comics have influenced the readership of the world in general.
RM: Kickstarter has become one of the leading sources in funding much of the indy comics coming out these days. You’ve already funded the European Comics Journal. Do you plan to fund your future projects through Kickstarter as well?
GP: Yes, I do. We are a small press company with limited resources; consequently, crowdfunding is an important part of our financing strategy. It was clear from the beginning that the readers would be very few, but we started this project primarily because we wanted these volumes to exist; we wanted give to those brilliant authors the opportunity to reach a wider public, and of course for ourselves. To contain costs we have opted for POD (Print on Demand), that allow us to print the amounts we sold at Conventions and our website. Starting a publishing company is a costly and hard task, therefore crowdfunding does indeed mean the difference between bringing new titles to life or not! We do our best to keep prices at a level that allow us to balance the costs, often even without gaining anything, and to reinvest the eventual small profit margin in the production of new books. Definitely, we don’t make the profits larger publishers do. I admit that several people in and out of the publishing world have told me that I have courage in starting such an endeavor (a polite euphemism for smiling at us as though we were crazy). Kickstarter is not just a financing source but, more importantly, a marketing tool that can help us raise awareness about our titles. Consequently we’ll soon launch a new project.
RM: The American comic market is almost totally dominated by superheroes, but the European market is totally different. Why do you think that is? Also, do you think that will ever change?
GP: I believe it’s already changed. Marvel and DC dominate with their superheroes titles—which sell for the art not for the stories— but people who actually READ comics have turned to new realities; I am thinking about awesome titles like Scalped, DMZ, and Preacher, just to name few. Readers want good stories supported by awesome art; this is what we deliver at Diego Comics Publishing.
The reason Marvel and DC dominate the US market is simply because they have the money to do so, money that nowadays comes from related toys, TV series, cartoons, and cinema. Money generates money. It’s a circle. It’s the continue rebooting of the same characters from the thirties and sixties. I admit that my knowledge of American superheroes is limited to the more popular names, like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Capitan America, X-Men… therefore, I’d like to ask when was last time that a successfully new superhero character was created? Personally I have a preference for ‘classical’ comic heroes, such as Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake… old school heroes without superpowers. Nowadays, I see many young creators—also on crowdfunding platforms—that mock the superhero genre. Why? Comics are a product of creativeness, not only of illustration but of storytelling. Heroes are ordinary people whose actions turn them to heroes. I believe that giving a favorite superpower to a character is easier than telling a strong story about the actions that turned the ordinary man into a hero. Does it make sense?
RM: Are you going to consider publishing some of your graphic novels through Comixology soon?
GP: Yes, it’s on our schedule. We are having small problems with getting the files to follow the requirements Comixology has, but we’ll soon have that sorted. Meanwhile, we have our titles on sale via another North American website, Drive-Thru Comics, which is smaller than Comixology, but offers us the opportunity to promote our titles on the other side of the pond.
RM: Also are there any plans to release some of the books through Diamond print distributions?
GP: Yes, there are. I had meetings with Diamond and other distributors last week at the London Book Fair. We are also planning new covers by renowned illustrators in the US to increase our visibility on the shelves.
RM: As the CEO of the company and a literary agent, do you plan on expanding towards American creators as well?
GP: One step at a time *smile*. Currently, my plate is full with European authors. I have a few ideas on how to publish independent US creators in the European comics market, which I will develop by next year. I can say that the second issue of ECJ (European Comics Journal) will host a section dedicated to US creators.
RM: What makes Diego Publishing titles stand out from other books coming out?
GP: Our authors are bestsellers in Italy, which gives us a guarantee on the quality of the stories and drawings. We at ‘Diego’ do our part by printing awesome volumes and making quality translations. It is essential, because one of our goals, as stated, is to provide the reader’s eyes the joy of seeing good mastery in drawings and inking of the great comics artists, and to feed readers’ minds with awesome storytelling. The characters of our titles are intriguing and well-developed, which has given us enthusiastic feedback by our readers and by a few reviewers. Our characters don’t have superpowers—Desdemona is a regular university student by day and radio DJ by night—but she is able to speak to the soul of the reader; Rourke the Hexbuster—although it has supernatural and magic content—is a story about family relationships; then we have Adam 2.0, an unusual comic book that has to be read to the end.
RM: Do you plan to expand Diego beyond Publishing? Towards gaming, movies or television venues, etc?
GP: Again, I am open to any prospect that can arise. All of our characters can easily be adapted into other media; actually Desdemona is currently being adapted into a TV series in Italy. In the last three years since I started this project, I have built a network of contacts in various sectors, but it will take time—and popularity— to turn them in a business project. We have a saying in Italy, ‘La gatta frettolosa fa i gattini ciechi’ (The hasty cat gives birth to blind kittens). In other words, “the world wasn’t made in one day.” My main objective right now is to focus on building a base of readership for our books that will guarantee that amount of regular sales needed to consolidate our finances, and then we will be in a position to grow and expand.
RM: What are some of the upcoming titles readers can look forward to from Diego?
GP: The three comic characters we have started to publish, Rourke the Hexbuster, Desdemona and Adam 2.0, include several books that will take us in to 2016 to complete the series release. We have already selected a few more authors to include in our catalog for both graphic novels and fiction. I aim to have published ten new titles a year—the main topics will be fantasy and sci-fi—but I’d like to have a western too. Moreover, the European Comics Journal offers us the opportunity to expand our selection of authors from other European countries, both by publishing short comics stories in the magazine or full new series in volumes. On that front, we have just launched a new Kickstarter to finance Issue #2! You can support us at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/582218041/european-comics-journal-02-lgbt-characters-in-comi
Indy comics have always had an original voice and the titles from Diego range from fantasy to beyond. You can find their titles at Drive-Thru Comics, and hopefully soon, at Comixology and a local comic shop near you. You can also find out more about the company and their titles at their website: http://www.diegopublishing.co.uk/